Curiouser and curiouser

Two acts may be one Tale too many in DTC's Alice

Opening night, with its mix of season subscribers, journalists, theater folk, and assorted other naysayers and wellwishers who were able to scam comp seats, always hums with energy. And the opening-night audience of Dallas Theater Center's Alice: Tales of a Curious Girl that watched as the lights dawned on Riccardo Hernandez's fun-house set--with tilted padded floors and doors, distorting mirror, and borders of twinkling carny bulbs--found themselves charged by the electric, reflective environment. The buzzing in our heads that greeted the first lines of the actors onstage felt as if it would carry us straight into Lewis Carroll's alternative universe of linguistic lampooneries and free-associative aperçus.

Unfortunately, it seemed to have carried some patrons right out of the theater: There were a conspicuous number of empty seats by the time the lights came up on the second act of Tales of a Curious Girl. My companion mused that those who jumped ship were exhausted by trying to interpret the first act's Adventures in Wonderland barrage of shrinking, growing, wading, mushroom-nibbling, and hookah-smoking in psychosexual terms--really, the thing to do since Bruno Bettelheim made gutter-minded explication of children's stories a legitimate intellectual enterprise decades ago in The Uses of Enchantment. These infidels weren't prepared to be inundated again by Through the Looking Glass, on which the second act is based. Generally, I'm prone to think a cigar is rarely just a cigar, but it's interesting how Americans--unlike, purportedly, the English, who are trained to ignore sexuality like a belch at high tea--can't relax and enjoy Lewis Carroll's wordplay as the aerobics of the imagination it was (consciously) intended to be.

Not that playwright Karen Hartman, who was commissioned by the Dallas Theater Center to write Alice: Tales of a Curious Girl, or director Jonathan Moscone had relaxation on their minds for the squirrely first act of this world premiere. Undermain members Raphael Parry, Bruce DuBose, and Lisa Lee Schmidt, joined by DTC regular Khary Payton and 14-year-old Maine resident Sarah "Squid" Lord as Alice, turn Carroll's Wonderland into a romper room of malice and mendacity. Being deceived or at least drawn into confusion by all around her, a delightful Lord becomes our eyes and ears for this hallucinatory divertissement. What the caterpillar and the hare tell Alice to do or not to do, they also tell us, and this has always been the little-acknowledged secret of the stories' timeless appeal. They're really less concerned with capturing adolescence per se than with providing a seaworthy vessel (the good ship Alice?) by which the reader (and viewer) may weather the confusion and crises created by peers harboring mysterious and hostile agendas. Alice's triumph is the triumph of the Anglo-Saxon ideal--that rationalism swathed in polite firmness is the best weapon. Critics of repressive, class-conscious English society might interpret this as that lethal adage "Ignore the problem and it will go away."

The first act of Tales of a Curious Girl is impossible to ignore. Its frenetic confrontationalism--best appreciated at face value, not with a chaser of Freudian theory--seems to have been what alienated some audience members, but it was precisely the reason I was charmed and riveted to my seat. I can't say the same for the second act, in which the live chess game of Through the Looking Glass is translated to the stage with all its methodical gloominess intact. Christopher Akerlind's lights grow dimmer and more expressionistic, Alice switches from Victorian schoolyard wear to a red velvet formal gown (could this be the "Beautiful Red Dress" of menstruation that Laurie Anderson sang about?), and the performances slow down to a brooding, occasionally ponderous pitch. Here, playwright Hartman and director Moscone seem preoccupied with the kind of symbolism that was all but impossible to contemplate during the furious barn dance of the first act. If that's not the case, then their decision to stretch Carroll's absurd material into mournful set pieces certainly bestows the nagging feeling that we're supposed to be filling in some empty spaces, bridging the gap between content and presentation. Why is the red queen so sad about living her life in reverse? What is the meaning of the mock turtle's lost, lamented vocal career? Most infuriating of all, Hartman jumps in with self-referencing deconstruction by Humpty Dumpty, who satirizes our need to plumb these proceedings for hidden depth even as he acknowledges that we're being nudged to experience that need.

My mind sailed back to a recent stage production of the Alice tales directed by lighting wizard Eduardo Ruiz Savinón and adapted by Manuel Nœnez Nava as Alicia Subterranea. Visiting the city for Teatro Dallas' International Festival, Savinón and Nava used a handful of crude props, a smoke machine, and colored lights applied with dizzying prowess (flickering waves became underwater reflections, lengthening and shortening shadows translated beautifully into Alice's size-shifting). The language barrier of the all-Spanish show broke down (though it would have remained for a non-Spanish speaker unfamiliar with Alice's adventures) as the facial expressions and body motions of the actors captured characterizations in elegantly woven butterfly nets. Who would have guessed that the spoken word would become secondary in any presentation of Lewis Carroll? Whether these Wonderland creatures preceded their author as archetypes or Carroll was the one to plant them in our literary subconscious, they emerged sharply drawn and full-blooded in a language I don't speak, and did so with a good deal less fuss than in the Dallas Theater Center's all-English adaptation.

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